Essential Forever’s Al Heaney recently packed up his turtlenecks and Peter Asher glasses and made the big move from the mellow Midwest to the lights of Los Angeles, where the former film student turned crooner just surprise-debuted a new single sparkling with Hollyweird dramatics. Released on Bandcamp “in the wee small hours of the morning” (to quote another beloved crooner), “Knew It Was the First Time” rotates in a candy-colored Roy Orbison orbit through a Milky Way of tape distortion, haunted by the specter of Phil Spector. Heaney croons about the power of love and crunches numbers like a possessed ’60s accountant in what he so poetically calls “the arithmetic of my unbound sorrow.” Impressed and obsessed, I went right to the serenading source to delve into the song’s essential magic along with the mysteries of music, style, interconnectedness and private eye Philip Marlowe.
In the classic California pioneering spirit of gold rush seekers and aspiring actors with Hollywood Boulevard stars in their eyes, Heaney hopped on Route 66 with his leading lady and sought out kicks and sparkly new opportunities in Tinseltown. “My partner and I decided to move to Los Angeles together from Chicago because we had been feeling a little stuck,” Heaney explained. “As we’d hoped, so far it’s encouraged us to take on new challenges and broaden our perspectives as people and artists.” The new single was one such intrepid challenge he set for himself. “It was my intention to see how quickly I could make a song, because I’ve never really had a solid opportunity to write alone in a studio where I can track anything I want; drums, piano, all that fun loud stuff that I can’t afford and/or would drive my neighbors crazy,” he shared. And the newly minted Angeleno rose to the task: “’Knew It Was the First Time’” was largely written and recorded in a night while I was in my friend’s studio in Pasadena” though “it took one more night to finish writing and recording vocals and add some overdubs here and there.” The dramatic results sound like they took far longer.
The theatrics begin on the cover, which humorously proclaims in a fanciful font, “The first song released since his last” and goes on to boast the musical stylings of an ensemble that doesn’t actually exist. “In the single artwork it says the song was recorded with the ‘Fremont Theatre Players,’” Heaney confesses, “but that’s just me having fun. I like adding the period-evoking illusion that Essential Forever is playing with these backing bands, even if that’s not the case.” Heaney’s crooner idols include the aforementioned Roy Orbison as well as Buddy Holly, Scott Walker, Dion, Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel. But despite his avowed fandom, he admits that he has “always loved the idea of poking fun of that ‘crooner’ idea, out of love and from finding humor in these larger-than-life characters.”
He’s all business however when it comes to his production preferences, which include recording “in stereo with ‘60s inspired instrumental layering and panning choices” and peppering songs with what he calls “Spector-isms.” “It was recorded/mixed on Logic Pro and then mastered on my 4-track TASCAM because I loved the tape distortion for it.” He muses, “If I could, I usually would prefer to record directly to tape, ideally reel-to-reel, but for now I just try to be resourceful with what I have. I did record my last album with Kevin Basko entirely to tape, which was a great experience.” He expresses “a genuine love for the audible idiosyncrasies of tape and the pressure it puts on you in the studio to embrace the moment due to its permanence relative to digital recording.” He plans to further embrace the moment with some live shows in the near future: “I’m rehearsing with a band of awesome folks and trying to get in ship-shape for playing live in LA.” In fact, he’s flourishing so well in the California sunshine that he’s already penned another single and a second album, so you won’t have to wait forever for your next Essential Forever fix.
Of course, any chat with a former film student must eventually turn to the cinema. When I brought up the subject and asked if his film studies informed his songwriting, he replied enthusiastically, “Corn = popped,” and shared, “I think my love for film informs my songwriting a lot. I frequently think about my music in cinematic ways,” adding, “sometimes I consider “Essential Forever” to be like an unreliable narrator or flawed protagonist.” If forced to play favorites he lists directors Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet and Terrence Malick and picks Altman’s 1973 classic private eye flick “The Long Goodbye” as his most essential film, gushing, “It’s got everything. It’s funny, beautifully shot, stylish, perfectly cast… The works.”
On the topic of style, in movies as in music, wardrobes matter. In “The Long Goodbye” when another character orders lovable private eye Philip Marlowe to “take that goddamn JCPenney tie off” and “have a little old-fashioned man-to-man drinkin’ party” with him, Marlowe responds, “Well, that’s OK with me but I’m not gonna take my tie off.” I asked for Heaney’s thoughts on the role of style in music, and he offered, “I think maybe you get a sense of the performer you’re observing by what they’re wearing and it sets certain expectations or breaks them.” And like Marlowe, he’s devoted to his signature look. “I’m liable to wear that turtleneck and glasses on any given day. That’s the style I like, and it also fits the Essential Forever character well.”
But what of the new single’s grand declarations on romance and the mathematics of his unbound sorrow? “Lyrically speaking, it’s meant to be interpretive,” he demurs. “I was interested in writing out these subjective verses about love, or desire.” Heaney explains, “When people hear any of my songs I think I want them to feel some sort of cathartic energy or feeling of emotional interconnectedness, which is exactly what I get out of recording and releasing music.” The cathartic energy extends to the new single’s nontraditional structure, which propels the listener into a constant state of forward momentum, hurtling headfirst into daredevil flights of melody with no traditional refrain to light the way, dark, deep and dizzying like falling in love, with both Heaney’s pleasing, pleading voice and the driving instrumentation sounding more urgent than ever before. “I knew it was the first time, the first time / I wanted you to stay with me!” he’s calling, and then suddenly it all comes to a crashing, unresolved end leaving you reeling and fumbling in the dark to play it again. There’s a scene in “The Long Goodbye” where Philip Marlowe comforts an imprisoned man by telling him, “Remember, you’re not in here. It’s just your body.” We’ve all felt hopelessly trapped in some way behind metaphorical bars, and great music (and films for that matter), can offer a rare out-of-body experience. When a timeless, transcendent song appears out of the ether in the wee small hours and takes listeners on a journey this spellbinding, though our bodies may be confined to less than magical circumstances, our hearts and minds can truly be unbound.